Women who work up the courage to call an abuse hotline often ask a jarring question:
“How do I get him to stop hitting me?”
Katie Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, knows the answer: “You’re not going to be able to do that.”
It’s not that abusers are incapable of changing their behavior; they can.
But the victim of intimidation, threats, bullying, put-downs and abuse will not be the one who changes an abuser.
The recent release of a graphic video of Ray Rice, former Baltimore Ravens running back, punching his then-fiancee in the face and dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator, sparked a public outcry. Plenty of discussion on social media focused on the complicated reasons why victims choose to stay with their abusers.
There can be a sense of foregone conclusion about the abusers. If they are capable of the sort of brutal violence witnessed in the Rice video, what are the chances an abuser can learn to manage such out-of-control behavior?
“If we talked more about what to do for the Ray Rices of the world, who are the perpetrators of violence, we might get even further in the discussion,” said Ruth Glenn, interim executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The answer has high stakes: 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to a 2011 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. Teens and young adults face the greatest risk of violence in relationships.
Ray-Jones ran groups for perpetrators for a few years and saw a hundred men go through the treatment program. It was court-ordered treatment, twice a week for 52 weeks. There were some successes: A man said he realized he would yell at his wife and tell her if she could just keep the house clean or the kids quiet, he wouldn’t get so irritated. He realized his culpability in that moment and started changing his own behavior.
She recalls another abuser, who said all the “right things” during the yearlong treatment, then said on graduation day: “I don’t understand why I had to do this program. I only punched her in the mouth.”
He had knocked three of his partner’s teeth out, and she had needed stitches.
Edward Gondolf is one of the world’s leading authorities on predicting abuse and re-assault among batterers, and the former director of research at the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Research and Training Institute. A long-term, longitudinal study by Gondolf looked at re-assault rates for men who attended treatment programs. Although almost half assaulted their partner again within the four-year span, the re-assault rate went down over time.
In fact, it went down substantially over time. More than 80 percent of the men had been violence-free for at least a year by the 30-month mark.
In other words, most abusers assaulted again early on. Eventually, the vast majority were violence-free for at least a year in the extended follow-up.
“Intervention does seem to matter,” Gondolf said. He cautioned, however, that there was a portion of men who were violent early on and unrelenting in their abuse. “These are the horror stories that bring into question whether men can change,” he said.
There is a core group of abusers who are unresponsive to change, impervious to treatment.
There’s been research that tried to help identify which abusers are more likely to assault again, but there’s a basic way women can get a sense of the answer themselves: Ask yourself if you feel safe. Do you think he will hit you again? Listen to your gut. Are you living with verbal abuse, threats and intimidation?
The same can be taught to young people learning to navigate the early years of dating and relationships. If your child is dating, talk about what a healthy relationship looks like. Share the signs of possible red flags. How much is this other person trying to control you? Is he or she overly jealous, always asking a lot of questions about your whereabouts? How much time and attention does he or she want and demand from you? Do you feel listened to and respected?
Oftentimes, abuse goes unreported. What is the likelihood that abusers who never seek therapy, or are not forced to undergo treatment, will change? I asked Gondolf.
“That’s an important question,” he said. “And one we’ve somewhat neglected.”
Listen to your gut.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.